Scientific theory is a contrived foothold in the chaos of living phenomena. – William Reich
My fascination with long-term athletic development took root in 2010 and was, as some of you might suspect with a roll of your eyes, connected initially to my kid’s baseball. But I was also motivated to find some way to explain what was, at the time, Jeff and Mikki Martin’s CrossFit Kids program, which I felt was poorly understood not only in the mainstream, but in the CrossFit community as well*. Now that the Martins are no longer associated with CrossFit Kids, it seems more important than ever that their method can be articulated to coaches, teachers, and parents as they embark on the next phase of their life’s work (which is actually significant and why I spend so much goddamned time writing about it).
I must’ve heard the term somewhere because, although I didn’t know anything about it, it had a comfortable ring to it—long-term athletic development, it had to be a thing. I thought I had a vague intuitive sense of what it seemed to be, but zero substantive information. So I started looking into it and took a step into what has become my own Phantom Tollbooth.
I’m pretty sure that my path from not knowing jack shit to my current state of knowing jack shit was fairly well-trodden, beginning with Malcolm Gladwell’s pop fantasy Outliers: The Story of Success, where I was introduced to his “10,000-hour rule,” which was apparently some kind of magic realism based on K. Anders Ericsson’s theory of deliberate practice. While wandering in that desert, I ran across maybe the most well-known construct for athletic development: Istvan Balyi’s Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model. I thought that was pretty cool, but soon discovered that it wasn’t without its critics**. I read those critics and chased sources that lead to more sources and found myself adrift in a churning sea of ideas that was at once inspiring and overwhelming.
Long-term athletic development research gets much of its play in the realm of talent identification/development (TID). Because TID’s endgame is elite performance, supporting models have a purpose narrower than the aims of the Brand X Method™. But there’s another interrelated sector of the literature that has dropped the “athletic development” moniker for “participant development.” This concept comes out of the UK and encompasses all athletes from recreational to elite with the goal of encouraging lifelong participation in sports and physical activity***. This certainly aligns much better with the Brand X Method™ than conceptualizations tailored for “talent” development.
It would take more pages than most people would be willing to wade through to adequately summarize what I’ve run across, so I’m not gonna bother and anyway it’s all part of a bigger manuscript I’m hoping sees the light of day in a year or so. But I thought I’d share some ideas I’ve been chewing on from that project. What I’ve learned so far is that athletic development is an immensely complex phenomenon that cannot adequately be understood with bullshit one-dimensional catchphrases and cool t-shirt designs. Having even a remote chance of accurately modeling it likely requires a firm grasp of dynamical systems theory and chaos theory.
Chaos Is the Score upon Which Reality Is Written
I don’t know if there’s a weekend seminar on nonlinear dynamic systems and fractals and what not, but I think I’ll pass. Let people who are smart and actually learned mess around with that shit. The takeaway for me is that the factors involved in determining athletic outcomes are numerous and their interrelationships and interactions are even more so. It’s hard for me to imagine a model, framework, or other template-like gizmo that manages to capture the sheer volume of possible butterfly-affected pathways and outcomes having any practical use in an athletic training environment.
A full-blown representation of the nonlinear, dynamic system of athletic development may be beyond reach at this time, but that doesn’t mean existing models don’t provide useful guidance. Of course they do. However, I think a program that commits to a single simplistic rendering as gospel runs the risk of calcifying the coaching process.
My kid played three nonstop years of travel baseball, culminating in the epic trip to Cooperstown, and then he stopped. I talked with some people about why he stopped but not a lot, and the majority of people connected with the team didn’t bother to ask. Kids come and go all of the time in travel ball, and anyway he wasn’t one of the top nine kids, so it didn’t really matter to most of the families. Some assumed he’d quit. No. I pulled him from the team. And not because he wasn’t getting playing time or any of the other reasons that families hop from team to team, their new allegiances suddenly revealed through a periodic and apparently not ironic flurry of fanboy Facebook posts that all sounded the same. Not at all; my kid had tons of opportunities to play.
I pulled him because, after three solid years, his development was not where I thought it should’ve been****. Now, understand that I don’t believe for a moment that travel sports are pure evil. Some kids flourish in that environment; many of the other kids on the team were progressing quite nicely. However, those were the kids who fit within the confines of the program, which was based on a blend of intensive “playing up” and a win-now coaching philosophy better suited to pyramidal TID structures than to a more inclusive participant development concept. But then the team had “elite” in its name, so there’s really no surprise there.
So was it solely the environment my kid was playing baseball in that led to me calling a halt? Was it the limits of his innate “talent”? Why didn’t my son develop in the same manner as most of the other boys? I have some thoughts on that, but you’re gonna have to read the book.
Jumping Through Hoops
A few years ago, my kid began playing rec-league basketball. From my perspective it was a way for him to play a sport with none of the gravity and angst that had accompanied his baseball since the fateful day we decided to play him up as an 8-year-old. In other words, it was a break (though without actually taking a break…. Bear in mind that not every multisport athlete is non-specialized, but they are often overscheduled).
Best way to describe his gameplay was “loose cannon.” Great athlete, few sport-specific skills. He played every year, careering back and forth on the hardwood having fun. So this spring when he said he wanted to participate in the newly formed Ramona Bulldog Basketball Academy, I said okay, although my asshole puckers when I think of getting involved with any kind of travel sport. One reason I allowed him to join is that he was excited about it, and he’s at the age when kids not only begin to lose interest in sports but opportunities start to wane. Another reason is that the academy is organized in part by a man (just a dad) who I have high regard for as a coach.*****
There are two teams for 8th-graders: An elite team and a developmental team. The kids were assessed and placed early on. I thought the split was exactly right. The elite team comprises most of the best 8th-grade basketball players in Ramona (other notable players aren’t participating)—this is really a high school-prep team and they’re out to win. My kid was placed on the development team, precisely where a loose cannon who knows so little about the tactical dimension of the game should be. The practices are well-organized, no wasted time, and a lot of basic sport-specific drills that my son’s never been exposed to. Their coach is a former pro player, a passionate dude, who assumes you’re on his team to become a better player, so he expects your best effort toward that goal and he’ll get on you if he perceives a lack of it. The coach is trying to turn the loose cannon into a point guard. You can almost see the vague shape of one there inside the little squid….
My kid missed the team’s first game cuz he had an appointment with a barbell that day, but he’s played in the last four. If he averaged as many points and/or assists per game as he does turnovers, the team might not be 0-5. Holy shit. To say they’re being dominated is to toss away an opportunity for some righteous hyperbole.
The team is so overmatched that the games might actually be illegal in Georgia.
But here’s the thing: With baseball, my kid began playing up at age 8, and his travel team made a regular practice of playing against older teams. The former was probably a fuckup on my part that ultimately led to the latter situation, which ended up not working out well for him. However, playing up or playing “above your station” can be an effective training tool. When properly coached.
Yeah, the basketball team is getting its ass handed to it every game, but the coach doesn’t worry about the refs’ calls, doesn’t worry about the other teams running up the score, doesn’t worry about his players appearing slightly dumbfounded by the aggressive high performance of their opponents (these seem to be excellent basketball teams, “elite” rather than developmental outfits). He’s providing instruction and feedback the entire time; he’s given a ton of energy so far and his only concern is seeing his players execute some of the things they work on during practices, individually and as a team.
I don’t think my kid, given his particular baseball circumstances, was ever properly coached, and nothing I could do or say—not as his father—could help offset the detrimental effects once I set his trajectory in motion. But here’s another thing: although the basketball team has been crushed in every game and my son could objectively be described as ineffective as a point guard, he has enjoyed the games. No way would he EVER have enjoyed a baseball game in which he performed so poorly.
It’s all about the coaching. It’s all about how his coach is defining the players’ success. I’m certain my son will be a better basketball player, and a better athlete, for this experience. I don’t know whether the basketball coach follows a model of any kind, don’t really care. I see results—a kid having fun making incremental gains at a good age to start more intensive sport-specific training. We’ll see how things progress, because one thing is certain, athletic development takes time.
There can be no one-size-fits-all framework, and I don’t believe any researcher believes his or her model is written in stone. But the possibility exists that practitioners will adhere rigidly to a model that has yielded results for them; it becomes a matter of expedience, because whether you’re delving into the theoretical side of it or just trying to process the vast amount of information out there, the enterprise can immobilize even the most well-intentioned coach. But I think force-fitting a young athlete into a rigid framework distorts the development trajectory just as much as it blunts a coach’s professional growth. I also think there’s a way to navigate the turbulence of youth development, and it is far less about theorizing from on high than it is about jumping into the tumult and coaching, training, trying, and learning.
The Brand X Method™ is a flexible, long-term approach focused on training good, safe movement to deliver developmentally appropriate physical literacy, physical fitness, and injury prevention. By flexible I mean highly individualized to ensure each athlete trains at the level and with the focus he or she currently requires. By long term I mean we’re teaching good movement to clients from ages 3 to 70+. By approach I mean not a model.
Our ultimate mission is to do what’s best for our clients. But what’s best right now may not be what best practices dictate later. We’re always looking to improve the program; we’re always digging into the empirical or theoretical research, learning from other training programs and philosophies, or testing new ideas during trainer Skunk Works sessions. In that way, the Brand X Method™ is not a rigid blueprint, but a mutable framework designed to flex with individual capacities and adjust for training improvements or when protocols stop delivering gains (sort of like when I decided my kid had gotten what he could from his travel baseball academy). This allows coaching to remain nimble and open to discovering better ways to help clients reach their goals and potential.
With the Brand X Method™ our aim is for clients to learn that the most valuable and sustainable gains are in movement improvement and to have fun with the process. Brand X trainers provide physical literacy, physical fitness, and injury prevention without codifying methods in a fixed series of linear steps. We acknowledge the need for our method to remain nonlinear, dynamic, and comfortable with the bedlam of human development.
* This situation always struck me as catawampus; it looked like shit and smelled like shit, but I was constantly told it was a rose.
** In 2013, Balyi responded with an expanded LTAD model that appears to address key criticisms.
*** Lifelong Involvement in Sport and Physical Activity (LISPA) is a formal framework based on Balyi’s LTAD, but obviously the idea of lifelong participation cannot be tied exclusively to any one method.
**** I was fascinated to learn that my wife, who often thought that the travel ball verged on stressful bullshit, was not entirely with me on this decision.
***** He coached my son for one season of basketball and never lost his cool, never made much of winning or losing, and always treated the boys with respect in a manner that left a deep impression on me.